World Soccer
Wednesday July 22nd, 2009

As Brazil coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari's most controversial decision was his refusal to pick Romário. Even at 36, Romário was still one of his country's most prolific strikers at the time and "Big Phil" faced a Spanish inquisition at every media conference. TV stations and newspapers launched pro-Romário campaigns and even Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then the Brazilian President, joined in.

Compare that to the current situation of Gonzalo Higuaín. Despite playing for a hit-and-miss Real Madrid outfit, the 21-year-old managed 22 goals in La Liga last season and is exactly the type of penalty-area specialist Argentina needs. Yet Diego Maradona declines to pick him.

While Scolari's refusal to select Romário became a matter of national of concern, a veil of silence has been drawn over Maradona's treatment of Higuaín. When Argentina's squad is announced, Higuaín's absence is ignored, the justification being that it was "expected," that "everyone knows about it" and therefore that it is not news. When Maradona gives media conferences, nobody plucks up the courage to ask why the country's in-form scorer is missing.

Deep down, the public and the media have become disillusioned with Maradona. The initial euphoria has quickly subsided and people have tired of his repetitive discourse, which is centered almost entirely around "honoring the shirt" and his endless whining about not being allowed to have Oscar Ruggeri as his sidekick.

But, as the Higuaín case shows, the revering Argentine media has avoided direct criticism, terrified that he will take offense and stop giving them exclusive interviews -- the ultimate penalty.

This applies especially to the 24-hour cable networks TyC Sports and Fox Sports, where Maradona pops up at all sorts of unexpected hours of the day and night. These "interviews" are little more than embarrassing charades where the interviewers pretend to ask questions, ducking anything at which Maradona might take offense, and Maradona (and most other players and coaches for that matter) pretends to answer.

The whole sad set-up could implode in September, however, when Argentina faces Brazil and Paraguay in successive World Cup qualifiers. Both matches are losable: Brazil is at its most lethal in away games when it can sit back and launch counterattacks of frightening power and precision, while Paraguay is always dangerous at home and facing Argentina brings out the best in it.

Neither of Argentina's most recent World Cup outings gave any cause for enthusiasm. Its 1-0 win at home to Colombia came thanks to defender Daniel Díaz volleying in its only real chance of a game in which Maradona's only apparent strategy was to field Sergio Agüero, Lionel Messi and Carlos Tévez in his attack of shorties.

"Maradona built the team from the front backwards and, in wanting to bring together attacking players, undid the organization of the team," said Marcelo Sottile in the sports daily Olé. "He destroyed its balance."

Afterwards, Maradona at least owed up to playing Fernando Gago out of position on the right flank. But, after that, it was back to his old chestnut: commitment. "In the first half, Colombia won all the 50-50 balls," he said. "That can't happen in our own stadium."

The next game was another high-altitude adventure, in Quito against Ecuador. After losing 6-1 in La Paz against Bolivia in April, many feared the worst. In fact, Argentina was much improved but failed to put away its chances. Messi missed a sitter in the 10th minute and Tévez, already sent off twice in the qualifiers, continued his unhappy run by missing a penalty. Goals from Walter Ayoví and Pablo Palacios in the last 20 minutes gave Ecuador a 2-0 win.

"Ecuador didn't do anything in the first half," said Maradona, adding he had no idea what he would do for the Brazil game. "I don't know what we're going to do between here and the airport, let alone in three months."

Although Argentina is fourth in the South American group, it is only two points clear of Ecuador and fifth place -- which would mean a two-leg playoff against a team from CONCACAF, possibly Mexico.

Would Maradona survive such an indignity? His previous coaching experiences, both in the mid-1990s, were abject failures and, so far, he has done little to suggest this could be any better. After starting out with friendly wins in Scotland and France, and then a 4-0 victory at home to Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier, Maradona's side suffered that infamous humiliation against Bolivia when he failed to prepare it for the unique conditions at 12,500 feet above sea level.

Incredibly, Maradona fielded almost exactly the same side which had faced Venezuela only four days earlier. The Venezuelans themselves then showed Maradona how it should be done as they sent a specially prepared team to Bolivia and won 1-0 at the start of June.

Maradona's reign has been punctuated by silly squabbles, the first breaking out within a week of his appointment, when Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona refused to allow him to pick former national-team defender Ruggeri as his assistant.

Never mind Grondona's dislike of Ruggeri, whose coaching career has been a succession of unmitigated failures. The row has kept bubbling and resurfaced when Ruggeri visited the squad's training camp before the Colombia game.

Maradona also fell out with Sergio Batista, the affable Under-20 team coach, and squabbled with River Plate, whose El Monumental stadium hosts Argentina's matches, for criticizing the state of the pitch. "It's a disaster, it looks like a piece of waste ground," he said.

Maradona certainly had a point -- the pitch had been used for a concert by veteran Argentine rock group Los Piojos ("The Lice") only a week before the Colombia game. The stadium itself is dilapidated and doesn't seem to have been painted since the 1978 World Cup.

But River's directors got up in arms and wrote to the AFA demanding an apology. As AFA members, they also asked for details about Maradona's appointment, his coaching qualifications and if he had undergone a medical. Somehow, this was turned into reports that the club had made insinuations about his mental state and a furious Maradona threatened to sue. Another pointless row is brewing.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.